Jean Claude Ellena Retrospective at Pitti Fragranze 2019: On Freedom, Professional Jealousy and His Newest Rose & Cuir [INTERVIEW]

???? Photo by Igor Masyukov (Fragrantica).

Maestro Jean Claude Ellena was the star of Pitti Fragranze 2019. There was a retrospective that Pitti Fragranze 2019 dedicated to his career and style evolution which guided the visitor along a white wall from Van Cleef & Arpels First (1976) to the latest creation for Frédéric Malle Rose & Cuir, which I finally had the chance to smell. His retrospective exhibition got more attention than all of the perfume stands combined. The chairs in his press-conference room groaned under the weight of journalists and bloggers sitting on each other’s lap.

Everyone wanted a touch of the living legend, literally: by the end of day two, Ellena acquired the same polished sheen of the famous local ‘Porcellino’, a bronze fountain of a boar everyone rubs for good luck. We cornered him and got him to sit with us for an hour.

Jean Claude Ellena Retrospective at Pitti Fragranze 2019

“Ellena was be the special guest of Pitti Fragranze with the first major retrospective exhibition dedicated to him, curated by Chandler Burr, perfume critic and ambassador of Pitti Fragranze. The olfactory masterpieces of his career and a series of images that trace the life of the master will be at the center of an experiential installation inside the Stazione Leopolda. On this special occasion there will also be a conversation/interview moderated by Chandler Burr, to tell the ineffable history of his perfumes, and the presentation of his latest, unmistakable creation, “Rose & Cuir” for Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle.

“This first ever retrospective of Ellena’s career from 1976 to 2019 presents fifteen of the artist’s most seminal works” says the curator Chandler Burr. “Some are important because they established the art medium firmly within entire aesthetic schools: Bulgari Eau de Thé Vert (1993) was the first great work of Minimalism in scent; L’Eau d’Hiver (2003) is one of the medium’s seminal works of Abstract Expressionism”.

“Taken as a whole, however, the works that span these four decades recount an extraordinary evolution in the artist, one he continues. Ellena has had a lifelong chamaleon-like ability to self-reinvent, to not merely experiment with new aesthetic approaches but to develop and create new compositional techniques and structures. Ellena executed his first widely recognized work, First (1976), in classic early 20th-century Romantic style, then after creating that great work of Minimalism he did In Love Again (1998), a masterpiece of neon Fauvism. Angélique Sous La Pluie (2002) is Photorealism. With Kelly Calèche (2007) Ellena experimented in Post-Realist terms. In these works are both the arc of an artist and the arc of a life.

 

???? Photo by Fragranze.

???? Photo by Igor Masyukov (Fragrantica).

Ksenia Golovanova:

I came across a lab sample of Rose & Cuir in June. At that time the composition had a different name, Rose Mistrale, ‘Windy Rose.’ I’m wondering why you changed it after all — it fit the perfume exceptionally well.

Jean-Claude Ellena:

With the name, we had difficulties. Indeed, the first thing we came up with was Rose Mistrale. But the name had to be unique, and it turned out that one had already been taken by someone in the US. We tried to buy it out, we failed. And that is how the name ‘Rose & Cuir’ was born.

???? Photo by Igor Masyukov (Fragrantica).

???? Photo by Igor Masyukov (Fragrantica).

Ksenia Golovanova:

Which is quite…

Jean-Claude Ellena:

Straight to the point, yes. We had other names in mind too. My favourite was Rose Rebelle because it is, in fact, a very unconventional fragrance made by me — a rebel. But that name was also taken (A Lab On Fire released their Rose Rebelle in 2003 — ed.). You know, perfume names are such a pain today. There are people who trademark good names and sit on them waiting for a company to buy them out. And if your brand belongs to Estée Lauder, expect to pay through the nose. They’ll say, ‘Okay, for you it’s 1 million euros’. It’s terrible.

Matvey Yudov:

Then how come there are so many perfumes sharing the same name? Several ‘Idoles’?

Jean-Claude Ellena:

I don’t know how they do it. But it’s a big problem.

???? Photo by Igor Masyukov (Fragrantica).

Ksenia Golovanova:

Your perfumer’s style is often described as light, airy, watercolour-like — by now, the metaphor has become a threadbare cliché. But if we look at your recent works for Perris Monte Carlo, Laboratorio Olfattivo and the same Rose & Cuir for Frédéric Malle, this good old description just doesn’t apply anymore. They have so much more weight, density, pigment. If they’re paintings, they’re oil paintings.

Jean-Claude Ellena:

Thing is, I’m looking for a new way to make perfumes. New to me, that is. I want to try new, different things, I want — yes, I want to play. I like to play.

Ksenia Golovanova:

How do people react to this ‘new Ellena’? You’re a living legend, your projects are high-profile. There must be expectations and projections.

Jean-Claude Ellena:

I let them expect and project. I don’t mind. It’s their problem, not mine (laughing). You see, I’m a free man. And I like to think that my freedom extends to my relationship with customers too. Maybe they like my work, maybe they don’t, but what I do I do honestly and the way that I think is right. One can risk, or do the same thing over and over again as long as it works. I prefer to take the risk. I don’t want to copy myself, always reaching out for that instant, easy recipe.

???? Photo by Igor Masyukov (Fragrantica).

Ksenia Golovanova:

You don’t seem to have an autopilot problem. No one expected Rose & Cuir to be what it turned out to be. Jean-Claude Ellena: Oh, I hope not. I like to think Rose & Cuir is a powerful statement, a new way to look at things. I’m really interested in seeing how people will react to it. If they understand the idea.

Ksenia Golovanova:

So far, is the reaction all that you have hoped for?

Jean-Claude Ellena:

So far, so good (laughing). Of course, I’m anxious. Of all people, I know what I’ve done, taking this totally new approach to something as old as a rose. We’ll see.

???? Photo by Fragranze.

Ksenia Golovanova:

How many versions of Rose & Cuir did you do? We know creating a fragrance for Frédéric Malle сan stretch well into forever.

Jean-Claude Ellena:

I did about a hundred… There was a lot of work. But then again, I was looking for a new way through a very old land. I tried, and I tried, and I tried.

???? Photo by Igor Masyukov (Fragrantica).

Matvey Yudov:

I think sometimes if a perfume takes thousands and thousands of versions to make it means the creators don’t really know…

Jean-Claude Ellena:

…What they want it to be, yes. Okay, with Frédéric, there was a lot of going back and forward. But most of it was pleasant (laughing). If I’m honest, he wasn’t so sure about Rose & Cuir when I finished it…

Matvey Yudov:

Not sure if it would sell well?

Jean-Claude Ellena:

Exactly. He was anxious because ultimately the risk was his to take. So what we did was we put Rose & Cuir away and didn’t smell it for three months. Then we went back and that was when Frédéric said, ‘Yes, it’s ready. It’s good’.

Ksenia Golovanova:

There are of course people who don’t like Rose & Cuir. What they usually say is it’s difficult. Prickly, steely, tough. Unforgiving.

Jean-Claude Ellena:

Yes! That was the idea all along. You wear it, we recognize you (laughing). It’s a statement fragrance.

???? Photo by Fragranze.

Igor Masyukov:

Did you know from the beginning you were going to use isobutyl quinoline in your leather accord?

Jean-Claude Ellena:

It’s what I call intuition. I thought isobutyl quinoline was a great match to everything else the fragrance had. What we perfumers call intuition is our knowledge and experience accumulated over years of work. I’ve been making perfumes for fifty years, I have a lot of baggage, I know what’s inside and where exactly. I don’t need many things. But when you’re new to perfume making, you put everything in your formula. It becomes big and bulky. Heavy.

Ksenia Golovanova: Your first perfumes were…

Jean-Claude Ellena:

Oh yes. A pile. In the end, it smelled good but I don’t know how I pulled it off. With time, you start to evaluate every contribution to your formula. Does it add anything to its beauty? Is it there for a reason? Do I need it at all?

???? Photo by Igor Masyukov (Fragrantica).

Ksenia Golovanova:

Frédéric Malle likes to say he gives his perfumers no limits on time, budget etc — anything goes as long as it smells good. And yet, you said there was no actual rose in Rose & Cuir because there was ‘no need to put it there, and it was expensive’.

Jean-Claude Ellena:

Oh, it is expensive. But the absence of rose in Rose & Cuir is a matter of beauty, not cost. Would the rose bring anything important to this fragrance? No. So, gone.

Ksenia Golovanova:

How many components are there in the formula?

Jean-Claude Ellena:

Fifteen. It’s a short one. I like short formulas, they’re so challenging. The shorter, the more difficult. Here, you really have to find the right… Ksenia Golovanova: Balance?

Jean-Claude Ellena:

No. The balance comes second. First you have to find the right components to put together in an accord. If the core accord works then you can twist and turn it — the perfume will still be recognizable. Finding the right accord is creation. Finding the balance is technicality.

???? Photo by Fragranze.

Ksenia Golovanova:

Your plate has been pretty full recently. Do you have the time — and do you want to — work with other perfumers? Share your knowledge, pass on your skills?

Jean-Claude Ellena:

No. I only work with my daughter (the perfumer Céline Ellena — ed.), it’s a family business. And I write books. I guess, it’s my way of sharing my knowledge. But honestly, I’m a bad professor. I don’t want to be copied by my apprentices — not because I’m reluctant to share my skills, no, it’s not that. What I think is everyone needs to find their own way. My way is long and not interesting at all.

???? Photo by Igor Masyukov (Fragrantica).

Matvey Yudov:

I’m asking this question at every interview, out of sheer curiosity. Can you name three aromachemicals you particularly like working with?

Jean-Claude Ellena:

Easy. If you take a look at my formulas or smells my perfumes, you’ll know the answer is: hedione, hedione, hedione.

Matvey Yudov:

So it’s true what they’re saying.

Jean-Claude Ellena:

Yes. For me, hedione is not a component. It’s support. I don’t like musks that much, I prefer iso e super or hedione — ‘watercolour’ stuff. I also use certain chemicals at a really low concentration of about 0.01%.

Matvey Yudov:

Pyrazins?

Jean-Claude Ellena:

Yes. All my formulas contain them. It’s this tiny stroke line, it’s not obvious at all and it took me a lot of time to get the hang of it, but it contributes a lot. I call it the ‘signature Ellena’.

???? Photo by Igor Masyukov (Fragrantica).

Ksenia Golovanova:

You have your favourite colours and your palette, but also you’re always upgrading it — you’re a very curious perfumer after all. What do you think of modern aromachemicals?

Jean-Claude Ellena:

I’m always comparing them to what I already have. If it works better, okay, I take it. Otherwise I ignore them. There are a lot of new molecules, of course. But today’s perfume world pays too much attention to performance — diffusion, long-lastingness, intensity etc. These things have nothing to do with beauty.

Matvey Yudov:

How can you tell a good perfume from a bad one? What is a good perfume made of?

Jean-Claude Ellena:

Anything. It’s not the materials that count, it’s how you handle them.

???? Photo by Fragranze.

Matvey Yudov:

Are you interested in other perfumers’ work? Do you smell them at all?

Jean-Claude Ellena:

No, not really (laughing). I used to before when I was young, trying to figure out how it all worked. Now I know it all well so there’s no need to.

Igor Masyukov:

Have you ever been jealous of another perfumer’s work?

Jean-Claude Ellena:

Jealous no. Impressed — oh yes. When i first smelled Diorella, I thought, ‘Shit! This is good’. Monumental. And now I know how it’s done.

Igor Masyukov: Hedione?

Jean-Claude Ellena:

No, no, no (laughing). Carrot. Not only that of course. But mostly that.

Matvey Yudov:

What is the most common mistake perfumers make?

Jean-Claude Ellena:

They work too fast.

???? Photo by Igor Masyukov (Fragrantica).

Ksenia Golovanova:

Which perfume took you the longest to make?

Jean-Claude Ellena:

Cuir d’Ange. Ten years. I started to think about it when I was hired by Hermès. They showed me this huge storage place where all kinds of leathers were kept, thousands of them. Their smells were so different. I spent a day there, just touching and smelling, and got this idea of a new leather — not your typical rough, oily cuir de Russie, something new and delicate, almost satiny. The first thing I made on my way to Cuir d’Ange was Kelly Calèche. It was good, but it wasn’t what I was looking for.

Ksenia Golovanova:

So Kelly Calèche was basically a draft of Cuir d’Ange?

Jean-Claude Ellena:

Yes. The first trial. It took me forever to get that leather right. But that’s perfume. You can’t rush it. If you do, it will take you nowhere. 

Source: Fragranze [1] [2],  Fragrantica, Interview by Ksenia Golovanova and Igor Masyukov.

 

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